SF Gate Fender-bender hit-run turns fatal in S.F.
Kickbox champ chases down driver, winds up shot to death
- Jaxon Van Derbeken, Michael Cabanatuan, Chronicle Staff Writers
Saturday, August 2, 2003
A world champion Thai-style kickboxer was shot to death in the middle of a busy San Francisco street Friday after he chased down a hit-and-run driver who had slammed into his parked car minutes earlier.
Alex Gong, 30, was pronounced dead at the scene on Fifth Street near Harrison Street. Witnesses said he was shot at point-blank range when he confronted the driver, who apparently waited for a traffic signal to turn green before opening fire and speeding away.
Gong, who had been working out at the South of Market training gym he runs at 444 Clementina St., was wearing yellow boxing gloves and boxing trunks when he was killed.
Late Friday night, police said they had identified the car believed to be the hit-and-run vehicle, a dark green 1995 Jeep Cherokee with license plate 3NAN185, and want to question the registered owner, 33-year-old Kurt Reiner of San Francisco.
"He's not a suspect at this time," said Maria Oropeza, police spokeswoman. "He's only wanted for questioning."
Police also are trying to locate his car, she said.
The slaying came one day after San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and other officials announced the start of a campaign to crack down on hit-and-run driving.
The 4:30 p.m. incident began outside Gong's Fairtex gym when his car, also a Jeep Cherokee, was hit by a passing car. Enraged, Gong gave chase on foot, going a block east on Clementina, then a block and a half south on Fifth Street. At that point, Gong confronted the driver, who had been forced to stop as traffic backed up near the Bay Bridge on-ramp.
''The victim put his arm out to stop the driver, the driver pushed him back and then shot him -- point blank," said Marilyn Moore, a witness who was riding in a car on Fifth Street.
'I JUST COULDN'T BELIEVE IT'
"The victim grabbed himself and fell backward," she said. "The driver backed up, put the car in drive and drove off. He turned right on Harrison.
"I just couldn't believe it, I've never seen nothing like that in my life," Moore said.
Brian Lam, 26, an instructor at Fairtex, said members of the gym saw the initial fender-bender through an open garage door. Gong, who was inside training, took off barefoot after the man, said Lam, who grabbed a camera and followed.
"As I was running up, I see Alex arguing with the guy," Lam said. "The light turned green, the guy popped him. He definitely waited for the light to turn green."
Lam said he tried to take a picture of the fleeing Cherokee, but was in a rush to help his mortally wounded friend. "I just yelled for people to help," he said.
A motorcycle officer on the way to the Hall of Justice nearby stopped, and he and Lam both attempted to resuscitate Gong.
"Last year, Alex paid for my CPR certification," Lam said. "I was giving him mouth-to-mouth, the officer was giving him chest compressions."
Lam said a single bullet struck Gong just above the heart.
"I thought he was dead maybe 10 seconds after he was shot," Lam said.
Gong, a resident of San Francisco, was born and raised in New England, and lived for a time in Central Asia before returning to the East Coast. He later moved to California and graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in business.
Long interested in judo and tae kwon do, Gong discovered Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing and the national sport of Thailand, in 1994. He once said in an interview that he was drawn to the sport by the fluid movement and careful balance it requires.
He had a natural affinity for the sport and racked up an impressive array of championships in the middleweight and welterweight classes. He appeared regularly on HBO and ESPN and headlined fights at the MGM Grand and the Mirage in Las Vegas. He was a dedicated competitor who trained tirelessly, often waking at dawn to run five miles and perform scores of sit-ups, push-ups and other exercises before going to work.
Gong worked equally hard as a businessman who introduced Muay Thai to California when in 1996 he opened a San Francisco branch of Fairtex Combat Sports Camp -- founded in Bangkok in 1976. It wasn't long before the firm employed 20 instructors and included more than 600 students. It is, according to the company's Web site, the nation's top Muay Thai training facility and the only one recognized by the World Muay Thai Council, which is under the authority of the Thai government.
'AN AMAZING GUY'
Under Gong's leadership, Fairtex opened another facility in Daly City in 2000.
As Gong's body lay in the middle of Fifth Street, wrapped in a yellow tarp, and police interviewed witnesses, students gathered at Fairtex. They were stunned and spoke with admiration for Gong.
Lam said Gong was a mentor and a leader.
"Alex was an amazing guy," Lam said. "He was the owner, but he was kind of like a big brother. It was a family environment.
"He was a fighter to the end. He was arguing with this guy to get him to pull over -- all he had to do was get his plate, but he had to get into it with him," Lam said.
E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at email@example.com
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